What can Philosophy of Religion Offer to the University?


Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org, we are asking philosophers of religion to tell us what philosophy of religion can offer to the modern university, considered either as a whole or through the lens of one or more university disciplines. Our blog is full of fascinating contributions of this kind.

Last year we witnessed a fabulous response to our challenge to look inwards and say what our field is and does, and we’ll soon present our analysis of those creative blog contributions. This year we are looking outwards as well as inwards, asking philosophers of religion to tell us how our field can impact the university or specific university disciplines.

For this theme, as for last year’s theme, we prefer to ask and listen rather than stipulate and define; it’s how we live up to our intention to speak for the entire unruly world of philosophy of religion. Ultimately we hope to analyze the themes in these blog entries and present our findings to you.

So read the blog entries and learn about philosophy of religion in the modern university from the experts who work in the field.

Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.

Mirela Oliva on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

mirela olivaMirela Oliva is Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of St. Thomas, Houston. We invited her to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The modern university is supposed to be a space that facilitates professional training and personal growth. Asking questions about the meaning of life might sound bombastic by the current academic standards, but it nevertheless touches everybody’s mind and heart. Why am I born? Why do I have to die? How can I make my life meaningful? Is there any narrative structure of my life?  Such questions range from metaphysical to ethical and aesthetic aspects of human existence. Philosophy of Religion is well equipped to deal with them precisely because philosophy is, in itself, a discipline structured along these lines. Philosophy can uncover these aspects in religious texts and practices and bring them into deep discussion in a classroom. In fact, philosophy and religion address the meaning of life, and each of them in a peculiar way: the former deploys critical reasoning, the latter relies on apologetic affirmation (sometimes narrative), revelation, and rituals. From the cooperation of philosophy and religion emerges a rich treatment of these issues. Academically, this exchange can take place in several departments (Philosophy, Theology, Religious Studies, Cultural Studies) and programs focused on the Humanities and Social Studies (Liberal Studies, Anthropology).

The success of such endeavor depends, I believe, on the right ethos. To be sure, Philosophy of Religion in a modern university must be inquisitive, critical and rigorous like every other academic discipline. Unlike Theology that defends the beliefs of a certain religion, Philosophy of Religion must be able to open an inter-religious conversation. 1) It is required to question the assumptions and consequences of religious beliefs for a person’s life. 2) It must set up an analysis of symbols and rituals that support those beliefs, relentlessly searching for truth and meaning. 3) It must stand in the middle between theological apology and cultural dissection. 4) Without any prejudice, it must keep a vivid interest in the true knowledge of life and reality.

At the same time, if we really want Philosophy of Religion to make a difference in the modern university, we have to convey passion, enthusiasm and persuasive strength in the classroom. The discussion of the meaning of life cannot be therapeutic, for it cannot directly and openly address the personal situation of each student. But it should be nonetheless inspirational and motivational. Philosophy is quite fortunate to inherit one of the oldest and most appreciated teaching methods, the Socratic method. In conjunction with the intensity, the urgency and the beauty of religious texts, symbols and rituals, such method can prove prolific and uplifting. One cannot talk about the meaning of life without letting oneself be carried, at times, by the high notes of this search: gravity, paradoxical tension, joy of discovery, humor.

We have, therefore, to define our discipline not only in terms of object and method, but also in terms of disposition and style. Philosophy of Religion is called to talk about the meaning of life in a way that helps students to grow as human beings. This is why, I believe, our discipline will be increasingly significant in the modern university.

Robert Smid on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Robert SmidRobert Smid is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Religion at Curry College. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

As several others have pointed out, any answer to this question depends on how the terms in the question are defined.  While the previous series of this blog focused on what “philosophy of religion” is, any answer to the question at hand will so depend on how that prior question is addressed that it is necessary to begin there.  I take philosophy of religion to be that sub-discipline of philosophy that is concerned with the most basic questions pertaining to the study of religion; in other words, it addresses the philosophical questions at the root of religious studies that the latter, as a social science, cannot address for itself.  The most basic of these questions, of course, is “what is religion?” (or, perhaps better, “what is it to be religious”), but it also extends to such related questions as “what counts as religious?” and “who gets to decide?” More developed and specialized versions of these questions include: Is religiosity a characteristic of only some persons, or is it a characteristic of human beings more generally? In what respect are religious truth-claims similar to and different from other kinds of truth-claims? What phenomena not typically considered ‘religious’ might be better understood when examined through the lens of religious studies?  Inevitably, these questions bleed into the discipline of religious studies, but one might just as well say that, pressed back to their root, the questions of religious studies bleed back into philosophy.

Of course, these are not the questions that have historically driven philosophy of religion.  When one can assume Christian normativity—as Western universities often could, at least culturally, prior to the twentieth century—the attention of philosophy to matters of religion can be focused primarily, if not exclusively, on Christian philosophical concerns. These include, but are not limited to, the existence of God, the reality of free will, the explanation of miracles, the possibility of an afterlife, and so on.  Considered outside of such normativity, however, it is unclear why these questions pertain specifically to philosophy of religion: either one is working out these philosophical concerns within the context of a particular religious tradition or set of traditions (in which case it is better understood as philosophical theology), or one is working out such concerns irrespective of their religious implications (in which case it is better understood as philosophy more generally). Thus, for example, arguments concerning the existence of a Judeo-Christian God would count as the former (whether made by theists or atheists), while arguments about the possibility of other planes of existence (such as the “supernatural”) would count as the latter.

To be of appropriate service to a modern university, philosophy of religion should reflect the pluralistic context within which such universities now exist. In this respect, philosophy of religion should be a comparative enterprise, at least insofar as the consideration of any specific religious phenomenon takes place only within the context of a consideration of religious phenomena more generally.  This would help to prevent giving disciplinary preference—explicit or implicit—to the philosophical concerns of one tradition or another.

It is precisely in helping to cultivate this broader perspective that philosophy of religion has the most to offer the modern university. The modern university is many things, and has interests that are both varied and often at odds with one another; however, it includes at least the following: providing a broader and deeper understanding of the world for its students than was possible in secondary school, improving the job prospects for its graduates, supporting the continual development of its disciplines, and contributing to the development of a well-informed and responsible citizenry. By broadening perspectives through the comparative and critical examination of basic assumptions, philosophy of religion—like philosophy more generally—can contribute to each of these interests.  Stated simply, the student who can think critically and creatively about such assumptions is more likely to thrive in a world that struggles to see past its own conventionalities.

Philosophy of religion, however, is in a particularly strong position to make this contribution.  Religious life remains one the dimensions of human life most often rendered immune from critical examination outside of the academy, so a student who learns to think critically about religious subject matter will not only have had to develop particularly strong critical thinking skills but is also likely to be a more culturally sensitive global citizen as a result.  Philosophy of religion thus not only has something of theoretical value to offer to the college, but something of immediately practical value as well.

Ultimately, then, the question of what philosophy of religion has to offer the modern university depends on whether it is able to move beyond the preoccupations of its parochial Christian history and engage the broader array of religious life as such.  While it is important to be aware of this historical trajectory, it would be a mistake to become bound by it.  If philosophy of religion can take this comparative turn, then I think that it has a great deal to offer the modern university.  If it cannot, then it will be difficult to see what it has to offer that philosophic theology or philosophy more generally do not already offer.  The modern university continues to change, as does the religious landscape around it; the value of philosophy of religion will be determined by its ability to adapt to these changes and serve their needs.



Rolf Ahlers on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

rolf ahlersRolf Ahlers is the Reynolds Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Russell Sage College. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion lives in the truth and guards skeptically against dogmatic decay of other sciences in the academy. What does that mean?

All thought is contextual. Thought’s objective context of reason is normative, necessary and unitary, while what thought thinks is contingent, for thought always determines what it knows. So we have three: the one context, the many determinants and mediating thought. That insight is basic to all knowing. Enlightening insight looks in and out: internal determination, e.g. self-determination, does not need external input. Similarly, empirical input from the outside also gains specificity and clarity through the modification it experiences in “being elevated into thought” in Hegel’s words. In both cases what is thought about is being changed in being determined. Philosophy of religion is and has always moved on those two planes: From antiquity to the present time we have known that God knows himself as self and other (Plato, Aristotle, John 1:1-5), and that knowledge is philosophy of religion. It has since the beginning claimed to be index sui et falsi, the criterion of itself as true and of what is false, similarly as light enlightens but also casts shadows. Since the very beginning real people like Plato, Plotinus, the Apostles John and Paul, people like you and I but also Pilate, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Darwin and Einstein have been part of that broad process of thought’s self-recognition in the history of thought and science, as also in political, economic and scientific history: in that history thought specifies itself as true, thereby also highlighting the false. The language and style of thought operative here has last gained prominence in Hegel; we claim here it has greater validity than for example what is known today as “structuralism”, “narrative philosophy”, “naturalism” and other similar oddities like “philosophy of gender and power studies”, “philosophy of mobbing” – the list of intellectual less rooted movements at modern universities goes on down to the idea that “ours is a post-metaphysical age”, the mother of all superficialities. What and how Darwin or Einstein thought cannot be separated from the ontology of thought thinking itself and what this implies theoretically. But empirical anthropology or sociology or economics or biology gained their potencies through a short-sighted rejection of the objective ontology of thought’s theoretical self-awareness. And that emancipation is, although empowering, reductive. No less reductive in the modern university is the universal acosmism, i.e. worldlessness of what is called “philosophy” or “religion” or other brainy disciplines such as “cybernetics”. Philosophy of religion recognizes and is skeptical of that acosmic reduction of the true heart of the university. The university is not only about providing tools for trade for lawyers or politicians or biochemists or teachers. The university is first and foremost about a disciplinary integrity that could only be achieved through an understanding how all thought coordinates truth and objectivity, and value and factuality, but that coordination is grounded in the distinction between truth and the lie. Distinguishing between truth as truth and the lie as lie gives greater weight to truth than to the lie. This is illustrated in Plato’s paradox of the lie: it is problematic to claim, as does the Cretan, as true that all positions including his own are lies. That means that some positions have more weight than others. The task is then to dislodge the half-truths and the lies in the academic world. Doing so is the skeptical side of philosophy of religion. It seeks to prevent decay into sociological description of religious practices or at the very least preserve a healthy discourse with value neutral sociology of religion, for such description has its place at the university. Also other natural sciences, e.g. Darwin’s insights, are no less central to philosophy of religion as are Einstein’s and that of all other scientists: after all, they are all part of the incredibly creative stream of knowledge’s self-realization in and through them. But there are forms of contemporary science from Marx’ “science of dialectical materialism” to Dawkin’s “science” that reject as “myth” or “delusional” Plato’s, the Bible’s, Spinoza’s and Hegel’s principle that truth is index sui et falsi. With that rejection “science” decays into dogmatism. And any dogmatism must be the object of skeptical critique by truth, for truth identifies the lie as a lie and so this identification points to the skeptical side of truth: Truth is skeptical of the lie and the half-truth. Our universities are populated with far too many dogmatists who claim the ideological mantle of “science” that has decayed to dogmatism. Philosophy of religion’s skeptical rejection of dogmatism throws a skeptical light on the dogmatism of confusing opinions with truth or to declare truth claims are ultimately not provable. Philosophy of religion is skeptical of the peaceful coexistence of all views and all sciences next to each other almost as if the rejection of any theodicy in the science criminology or in holocaust studies is indifferently coequal with Hegel’s philosophy of the spirit which is theodiceic in principle. That means: philosophy of religion would be skeptically watchful over curricular decisions as also over the very institutional structure of the university. In short:  From Plato to Hegel skepticism was central for a philosophy worthy of that name. We claim such centrality of skepticism for philosophy of religion, modifying Luther’s pronouncement: Spiritus sanctus scepticus est: the Holy Spirit is a skeptic. The absence of such skepticism in the modern university has led to world-wide problems from the ecological crisis to economic and demographic and other imbalances on a global scale. To deal with such problems we would first need to recognize the problem in order to then build a real, modern university that overcomes dogmatic reductivism everywhere. That is as much a philosophical as it is a scientific or institutional responsibility: The task is as huge as it is necessary: The specialist in Heidegger needs to learn to talk meaningfully to theoretical physicists as well as to behaviorist economists.

Jeffrey Wattles on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

jeffrey wattlesJeffrey Wattles was Associate Professor of Philosophy at Kent State University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

What can philosophy of religion offer to the modern university? Quick answer: Teach an experiential philosophy of living in truth, beauty, and goodness.

A new opportunity on the horizon builds upon one of philosophy’s classical functions, interdisciplinary reflection. Philosophy of religion courses that include units on science and religion, philosophy and religion, religion and the arts, and religious ethics already bless the university.

But more can be done to mine the interdisciplinary potentials. Philosophers of religion can pioneer a new approach to education in meaning and value. Philosophy is the premier academic discipline when it comes to interpreting meaning, and philosophy of religion is philosophy’s specialty best suited to probe the range of values cherished as supreme by diverse individuals and groups.

Two more ingredients will enhance philosophy of religion’s outreach to the university: a philosophy of living in truth, beauty, and goodness, and an experiential approach to education. Let me explain.

Truth, beauty, and goodness are qualities of divinity that we can live. Truth is the supreme value that lures and rewards thinking. “Truth” here does not connote an absolute; rather, like a living cell, it is both sturdy and flexible, trustworthy and adaptable. Truth has a spiritual core, a scientific periphery, and a philosophical bridge between the two. The image comes with a caveat, however, since philosophy’s bridge does not function as a passive supporter of whatever traffic would march across it bearing passionate beliefs regarding science or religion. Truths are acquired by experiment, interpretation, and faith—the methods befitting their correlated domains of reality. Science discovers truths of fact, philosophy truths of meaning, and spiritual experience truths of value.

Beauty is the supreme value that lures and rewards feeling; and joy registers our recognition of beauty. Such claims require expanded concepts of beauty and joy. Beauty is not confined to one aesthetic quality among others, from the humorous to the sublime; rather beauty embraces the spectrum of positive aesthetic values. Nor is joy a crystallized emotion; it varies from quiet contentment to enthusiastic celebration. Above all, beauty is a spiritual reality that reaches down to become perceptible in nature and to inspire artistic creativity.

Goodness is the supreme value that governs doing. The concept of the good must be expanded to include the right; and morality is here understood as an all-things-considered affair, just as excellent character integrates virtues drawn from every kind of activity.

The bonds that join truth, beauty, and goodness are hinted at in the connections between thinking, feeling, and doing—which do not transpire in a value vacuum. Students taking philosophy classes are typically seeking a higher quality of thinking. But neuroscience, psychology, and ordinary experience agree that these three basic human activations are interrelated. The parts of the brain that support thinking are connected with the parts that support emotion. The widespread applicability of psychology’s cognitive-behavioral therapy gives credence to the motto: Think better and you’ll feel better; feel better and you’ll act better. And we know from experience that thinking hardly flourishes when emotions are in turmoil and behavior seriously off track.

Thus it should be no surprise that education in thinking can be enhanced by including the other dimensions as well. This is what I found during my last fifteen years of teaching, when all my classes were centered on experiential projects, from introduction to philosophy, aesthetics, and ethics, to world religions, philosophy of religious experience, and philosophy of religion.

In order to make project-centered teaching accessible, I went to great lengths to be supportive of each student and to make the projects open to all regardless of their beliefs. I would select the most widely appealing teaching in whatever philosophy or religion we were studying, propose that for their projects, and repeatedly encourage them to modify that teaching as needed, to make it more religious, less religious, differently religious, or more secular, less secular, or differently secular—until each person had an idea that he or she felt good about applying in their lives. I would mention that the greatest growth in a project comes from focusing on one’s front burner issue, one’s biggest growth challenge (if it is psychologically wise to do so). After six weeks, students would turn in an experience report narrating what they did, what happened as a result, and what they learned, as related to the readings. Over the years, an estimated two-thirds reported a transformative breakthrough. Skepticism, for example, about the reality of these values vanished as students pursued what they found to be cool, awesome, or in other ways personally compelling.

In some courses, one of the projects was on spiritual experience. I would give them a choice between conscious breathing and centering prayer, and was happy to discuss other practices. After three weeks, remarkable experiences would begin to occur, and I would mention the possibility of complementary explanations: biological, psychological, and spiritual.

Philosophy has produced countless books and articles on truth, beauty, and goodness, taken singly, in pairs, or all together, and innumerable discussions relevant to the philosophy of living. Religions have libraries of texts on supreme values and how to live them. Philosophy and religion all need these themes synthesized in a well-developed philosophy of living in truth, beauty, and goodness, but nowhere is one to be found—yet.

Next summer Cascade Books will publish my book, Living in Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. There I set forth concepts, say more about my approach in teaching, give excerpts from student papers, and present chapters on science, philosophy, spiritual experience, the beauties of nature, the arts, morality, and character. Each chapter highlights the relevant virtues of someone whose excellent qualities we may in some measure develop in our own lives: Darwin, Socrates, Jesus, John Muir, Bach, Albert Schweitzer, Jane Addams, and Pitirim Sorokin. Some of these discoveries have been shared in my weblog, http://ANewPhilosophyOfLiving.com. I make no claim to doing anything more than helping to construct the new philosophy of living, which is emerging through the work of many persons. Please help.

Aaron Simmons on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

J. Aaron Simmons hi defJ. Aaron Simmons is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Furman University. He is the author of God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn (Indiana UP), co-author of The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction (Bloomsbury), and co-editor of Reexamining Deconstruction and Determinate Religion (Duquesne UP), Kierkegaard and Levinas: Ethics, Politics, and Religion (Indiana UP), and Phenomenology for the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave, forthcoming). Currently, he is working on a book simply entitled Continental Philosophy of Religion. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with a marketing and public relations firm that is working with my University’s admissions office to shape a narrative for presenting the distinctiveness of liberal arts education and, especially, the way in which our institution stands as a national leader of such education. What I quickly discovered was the degree to which explaining liberal arts education was understood as a matter of presenting it as instrumentally valuable in relation to the end of a successful life and lucrative career. While there is nothing necessarily wrong about success and financial wellbeing (indeed, I hope for both for my own son, who is now six years old), there does seem to be something troubling about the idea that the point of higher education is primarily understood as a matter of job preparation. On this model, relationships are important because of the network of connections to possible employers that can result. Similarly, critical thinking, reflective analysis, rhetorical ability, and careful interpretive awareness are all valuable due to the way in which they stand as “transferable skills that are in high demand in today’s complex and quickly changing global marketplace.” Though I am sure that such marketing firms are important for institutions of higher education that are trying to better position themselves in an increasingly difficult situation of changing demographics and increasingly pragmatic social priorities, I think that reflecting on the value-theory operative in the assumptions that tend to guide such “positioning strategies” offers an important opportunity to glimpse the possible importance of philosophy of religion for the modern university (whether a liberal arts institution or not).

Simply put, my suggestion is that philosophy of religion is distinctively, though perhaps not necessarily uniquely, able to highlight the existential stakes of higher education itself within a social frame. Philosophy of religion is not a discourse that works well when considered as being of mere instrumental value to some other pragmatic end such as theistic belief, say. The goal of philosophy of religion, as opposed to philosophical theology, should not be to lead individuals to the truth of religion, but to provide the space for reflecting about how and why what we call “religion” can stand as one of the most important aspects of a person’s identity. Philosophy of religion stands as a productive instance of academic inquiry being about more than merely a consumable outcome, but instead about the decidedly personal task of self-making that should occur in the context of university life—for scholars, for students, and for society.

I have argued elsewhere for the importance of philosophy of religion as a “personal” discourse, but not a “confessional” one. By that I mean that philosophy of religion should start from the fact that religious phenomena (or the possibility thereof) are not merely value neutral objects for detached speculation. Rather, as Gianni Vattimo suggests, none of us start from zero when it comes to religion. Here I do not mean to suggest that atheism should be understood as a religion, but simply that there is no non-answer when it comes to religious identity and truth. Even if one challenges the category as socially constructed (see, for example, the work of Jonathan Z. Smith or Russell McCutcheon), or globalizes the category such that it is deeply problematic (see, for example, the work of Richard King or Tomoko Masuzawa), fundamental concerns of human existence hang in the balance regarding meaning, value, and community. Importantly, it is because I think that reflecting on the very category is so important for thinking well about religion, whether philosophically or not, that I think philosophers of religion would do well to engage more often with the work of scholars in religious studies, and especially those working in critical theories of religion.

When philosophers of religion invite students, colleagues, and the broader public to reflect on questions attending to the meaning of “God,” the relationship between something called “faith” and what we term “reason,” or the possible ways in which religious life offers promising resources, and raises potential problems, for contemporary social existence, they invite reflection that is difficult to marginalize as being of “merely academic interest.” Instead, the very meaning of our lives and the application of those lives in a shared world are at stake in such inquiry. Again, this is not to say that other academic pursuits (whether in or outside the discipline of philosophy) do not, or cannot highlight such matters, but regardless of whether there is a God or not, whether faith is a product of divine grace or simply a matter of wish-fulfillment, or whether religion is a reflection of divine activity in the world of human affairs or nothing more than a social construct deployed in a network of power-relations, we are better off when we wrestle with such possibilities than we are when we do not.

When we do, we face up to the potential limits of human abilities and, thus, can better foster humility as a mode of being. Moreover, when we do, we find ourselves attending to the difficulties of asking questions that may not admit of final answers, yet this calls us to remain open to what might lie beyond ourselves. Finally, when we do, we confront the dynamism of different communities who attempt to live into the space left open by these persistent question-marks and so we are likely to see hospitality as about much more than we would have otherwise figured. Philosophy of religion offers a great deal to the contemporary university because it invites us all to interrogate patiently the assumptions that we allow to remain basic in our conceptions of meaning, value, and truth.

One of my professors in graduate school used to say that whatever else God might be, God was definitely “trouble.” Investigating the truths that attend the associated notions of God, the divine, faith, etc., while recognizing that we never do so without already being committed to particular inherited socio-cultural ways of understanding these notions should “trouble” not only our complacency with the way things are understood to be, but should also “trouble” our aspirations, our ideals, and our shared goals when they fail to live up to what we would name as worthy of our effort, and perhaps even worthy of our worship.

In the end, then, philosophy of religion should and can be a striking resource for reclaiming the narrative of the aims of the contemporary university itself. Rather than focusing on instrumentally valued transferable skills that are packaged by a marketing firm, philosophy of religion refuses to turn away from the importance of thinking about the depth of existence exposed when we attempt to think about those dimensions of existence itself that cannot be reduced to a slogan. In this way, the practice of philosophy of religion might rightly be understood as a type of academic “spiritual exercise,” whether or not there is a God and whether or not one rightly passes as a theist, an atheist, or something else.

Carl Raschke on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

raschkeCarl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The philosophy of religion is more important than ever to the curriculum of the modern university and offers something that is increasingly in short supply among academics – a broad, probing, and critical perspective on the more encompassing issue of the nature of religion as a whole.

The urgency of boosting both the contributions and the prestige of the philosophy of religion in the university is driven by two key developments in recent decades: 1) the proliferating public perception that only scientific investigations can ascertain what is real or valuable in human affairs; 2) the companion belief that all religious views, values, or perspectives are somehow equivalent to each other.

Historically, religion and science have never been so neatly separated from each other as the public is wont to assume. Einstein frequently made references to God in his public accounts of relativity theory. And various studies by the Pew Foundation have found a more complex, nuanced, and even conflicted relationship between the epistemological commitment of professional scientists and their personal religious orientation. Philosophy of religion with its multi-century legacy of sorting out theological from scientific claims can play a much more robust role in these discussions than it has done to date.

More overarching “theological” questions – i.e., questions about the relationship between the infinite and the finite or, as Paul Tillich famously put it, between the “conditioned” and the “unconditioned” – have historically been intertwined with scientific inquiry, and one cannot leave these sorts of “meta”-questions to science alone.

Science itself is reaching its own internal limits, according to recent conversations going on among top theoretical physicists. “The next few years may tell us whether we’ll be able to continue to increase our understanding of nature or whether maybe, for the first time in the history of science, we could be facing questions that we cannot answer,” Harry Cliff, a particle physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, stated at a public talk in Geneva, Switzerland.

Given that what is now considered theology today tends to be largely tradition-centered and confessional, while the philosophy of science has scrupulously avoided religious questions, it remains for the philosophy of religion to pick up the slack.

Second, the age of radical pluralism and spiritual consumerism, in tandem with the co-optation by certain political movements of traditional religious symbols and ideas has led to a certain popular inattention, if not ignorance, what it means to be “religious” in a deeper sense than what one merely professes. The broad, sprawling, multi-disciplinary zone of inquiry we now know as religious studies has sensitized us to the seemingly infinite array of “ways of being religious.” Yet it has also had the opposite, and often detrimental, effect of leaving us both reluctant and lazy about making necessary, normative judgments about the complex, and qualitative differences between these different representations of religion.

Only the philosophy of religion with its broader, “dialectical” sweep of the issues themselves can prevent this paralysis of judgment, or what in the past I have termed the “default of critical intelligence,” when it comes to the question of religion. For example, the persistent and intense controversy over whether certain kinds of religious beliefs can be integrally associated with acts of terrorism, or whether those beliefs are both inconsequential and episodic, cannot simply be resolved by arriving at some consensus on who truly is a Muslim, Christian, Jew, etc. Philosophy of religion can assist us in figuring out whether the last question is even meaningful at all, or it can bring to bear certain criteria for settling the matter in the first place.

Our democratic deference toward maximizing the amount of religious diversity in the public sphere has to be tempered with a serious intellectual inquiry into the criteria and procedures for adjudicating various religious claims, which sometimes border on sheer pretentions. We cannot rely merely on descriptivist methods as well as the variety of not-so-thinly-disguised religious apologetics that counts today for the academic study of religion.

I myself have argued, especially in last two published books (Postmodernism and the Revolution in Religious Theory, University of Virginia Press, 2012; Force of God, Columbia University Press, 2015), that the study of religion, if it is truly to find a distinguished place within the modern, secular university, needs a strong and salutary infusion of theory. But the framework for the theory of religion has always been the philosophy of religion. And our understanding of religion in a world where religion is in the headlines almost daily becomes profoundly impoverished without the voice of the latter.


David Schrader on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

David SchraderDavid Schrader taught philosophy of religion for thirty-one years at Loras College (Dubuque, IA), Austin College (Sherman, TX), and Washington and Jefferson College (Washington, PA). He also served as Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association from 2006-2012. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

What philosophy of religion has to offer the modern university almost certainly differs somewhat depending on the specific mission of the university.  My own answer to this question will be both personal and confessional.

I was drawn to philosophy as an undergraduate fifty years ago because philosophy seemed to be the one discipline in which I could jointly satisfy my love of mathematics and my passionate interests in religion and politics. I was immediately drawn into philosophy of religion. That interest led me to pursue graduate study in the history of religion prior to pursuing my graduate study in philosophy. Prior to my last six years of employment, as Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association, I taught for thirty one years in three small liberal arts colleges. The first of those was a Catholic diocesan college, where my course in philosophy of religion was looked upon with some suspicion my some of my senior colleges who saw it running at cross-purposes with the late 1970s traditional “Philosophy of God” course that a senior priest taught. The two institutions at which I spent most of my career teaching philosophy of religion were small liberal arts college with modest or no religious affiliation.

In the settings in which I taught, philosophy of religion offered something parallel to other “philosophy-of” subdisciplines. Much as students interested in the sciences benefit from studying philosophy of science, students interested in religion benefit from studying philosophy of religion. The difference is that a lot more students are interested in religion than are interested in science. This gives philosophy of religion a particularly important contribution to make to the university. In addition to the interest that many students have in religion, it is clear that religion plays a significant role in contemporary American culture. If a central purpose of the university is to graduate students who are capable of thinking and reflecting clearly, critically, and accurately about the world in which they live, the ability to think and reflect clearly, critically, and accurately about religion should be part of university education.

The kind of philosophy of religion that I think has much to offer universities regardless of their particular sectarian orientations is not to be confused with philosophical theology. Philosophical theology is a subdiscipline of theology, while philosophy of religion is a subdiscipline of philosophy. From a confessional standpoint, my own deeply Lutheran theological orientation leads me to see philosophy to have little to offer as a foundation for theology. By contrast, philosophy has a great deal to offer as a vehicle for critical examination of religion and for clearer understanding of religion. Philosophical theology undoubtedly has a contribution to make in universities affiliated with religious denominations that see philosophy as providing a grounding for religion, but not in universities without such affiliation (unless housed in a Religious Studies Department).

I will conclude my contribution by identifying what appear to me some, but not all, of the major issues over which university students puzzle that may benefit from engagement with philosophy of religion.

Reason and Religion: There are clearly those who claim that reason can either count decisively for or against religious belief. This is a question that philosophy has engaged for over two thousand years. It is important to examine both contemporary and historical arguments for and against religious belief in appropriate context. The natural theological arguments of Saint Thomas, for example, are raised against a backdrop of Aristotelian physics. Sound philosophical practice requires that the background beliefs about nature that underlie the arguments be recognized and explained. Similarly, Hume’s famous argument about the unreliability of miracle reports arose in the context of a broader early 17th Century debate about miracles. That context also needs to be acknowledged. More generally, it is important for students to engage the larger question of how tightly evidence constrains belief and how reason may help refine beliefs that are rationally neither required nor forbidden.

Language: Should the language we use in religious discourse be taken as accurately descriptive of God? What is the relationship between language and reality? Does God differ from natural reality in ways that affect the adequacy of language to describe accurately? Additionally, how do names function? We see in public and religious discourse debates over whether Christians and Muslims worship “the same God.” Any responsible answer to that question requires that we understand reasonably the putative reference of the term ‘God’ as used by Christians and ‘Allah’ as used by Muslims. To the extent that both refer to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” we should be driven to a conclusion.

Religious Diversity: This is certainly related to both of the above issues. This issue goes well beyond religious differences between Christians and Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, etc. Not all Christians are in full theological agreement. Even Christians within the same denominational tradition have theological disagreements among themselves. Are these simple issues of one being right and the other wrong? Or are there ways of engaging religious disagreement that allow for more sympathetic forms of conversation.

Coherence of Religious Traditions: This is not a widely addressed issue within philosophy of religion, but it is an important issue for many students. In the current American environment religion frequently becomes hijacked by politics. There is a significant political alliance between some socially conservative Catholics and some socially conservative Evangelical Protestants. The pivotal issue that has cemented the political alliance has been abortion. That political alliance, however, carries over into other issues. I have seen socially conservative Catholic students who think that they should oppose biological evolution because of their Catholicism. Some theologically conservative Evangelical Protestants see their religious views as opposing biological evolution. Yet there is nothing in the Catholic intellectual tradition that would drive traditional Catholics to oppose biological evolution. Students need to learn to avoid simply following political movements, conservative or liberal, as an alternative to thinking carefully about their own commitments.

Merold Westphal on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

merold-westphal-bwMerold Westphal is Distinguish Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Fordham University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I believe that what follows applies to both private and public colleges and universities and to both religious and secular schools. By ‘religious’ schools I mean those who make a serious attempt to integrate their religious identity with their academic program. Neither being “church-related” in either its historical origins or current constitution nor having a denominational or interdenominational chaplaincy suffices to categorize a school as religious in my sense.

Of course, religious schools may have students and faculty who do not share the institution’s religious identity. But they should expect that some students choose that school in part because of that identity; and they should insure that a critical mass of the faculty (an unquantifiable percentage, once it is allowed to fall below 100%) are committed to it.

For religious schools philosophy of religion can and should be in the mode of “faith seeking understanding.” This does not preclude being ecumenical rather than parochial about it; but it does mean that no one should be surprised or offended if special attention is given to the resources, history, and problems of a particular religious tradition. The school’s raison d’etre is, at least in part, to be an academic arm of that tradition.

I take philosophy to be critical reflection on our beliefs and practices. So philosophy of religion is critical reflection on our religious beliefs and practices. But who are we? I think in terms of concentric circles. For secular schools, we are the heirs of western civilization, and “our” religion is the Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices, rooted in the Bible, that for better and for worse have played a role in our becoming. But we are also members of the human race, and “our” religion includes the eastern and tribal religions that we can picture as belonging to an outer circle, less central to our own identity but not simply extraneous. For religious schools there will be an inner circle in which “our” religion will be some particular tradition with biblical roots. So, in varying degrees, all three circles represent “our” religious beliefs and practices and are appropriate subject matter for philosophy of religion.

Such reflection can have two rather distinct senses: philosophizing about God or, perhaps, the Sacred, and philosophizing about religion, observable human networks of beliefs and practices that purport to be in touch with a reality that is transhuman and not observable, at least not directly. In either case, such reflection can ask two rather distinct questions: normative and descriptive. On the one hand, are the beliefs true, and are the practices appropriate? On the other hand, how can the meanings of the beliefs and practices be clarified so as not to be confused with different, if not always easily distinguishable, meanings? Analytic philosophy of religion tends to focus on the former questions, phenomenological and comparative approaches on the latter.

Persons whose thought about God and religion barely got to the junior high school level but have a college level understanding of science and technology, music and literature, psychology and sociology, etc., will fit all too well the title of a book by J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small. Given the close relation, de facto, between religion and morality, the latter may be seriously undeveloped. The discrepancy within the educational system will represent a cultural prejudice against religion. Serious study of the philosophy of religion is one way of providing students, whether or not they are active in a religious community, with an adult level of understanding of God and of religion that is on a par with their understanding of other dimensions of their world.

Here’s another benefit. To a large degree we have inherited from the Enlightenment the view that reason is universal and univocal. It is neutral, objective, unprejudiced, and unconditioned. Religions whose highest authority lies in some purported divine revelation, some “bible” or sacred text, for example, are particular, seeing the world through lenses that represent a prejudice (pre-judgment) that is formally and sometimes materially irrational.

So, the title of Kant’s book on religion, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, is also a good name for what we can call the Enlightenment project in philosophy of religion. The task of philosophy is to bring religion up to the level of rationality in one of two ways: rejecting outright those beliefs and practices that offend reason and reinterpreting those that can be salvaged by giving them quite different, “rational” meanings.

This view is still with us in various forms. But it is clearly false. Consider the most powerful examples of this project from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, respectively: Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel. One doesn’t have to delve very deeply into these philosophies of religion to see that they are mutually incompatible, each deeply at odds with the other two. But this shows us that the “reason” to which they appeal as their norm is not universal, objective, and free from presuppositions. It is rather a quite particular worldview or paradigm that functions as the a priori condition of all possible interpretation, whether of scriptural texts or of the worlds of nature and spirit. So far from being an unprejudiced “view from nowhere,” the three versions of “reason” and the resultant philosophies of religion relate to one another more like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – combining some overlap with deep divergence.

I call the systematic recognition of this finitude and particularity of human reason the hermeneutical turn and take it to signify the difference between modern and postmodern philosophy. But this means that ‘postmodern’ is not narrowly the name for French poststructuralism, since this turn has been made in various analytic philosophies (including Kuhnian philosophy of science), continental philosophies, and American pragmatisms.

Philosophy of religion taught in the modern mode offers the university a view of human reason that is unable to sustain itself and a view of religion resting on this faulty foundation. Taught in the postmodern mode, with an explicit hermeneutical turn, it offers the university a more modest understanding of human reason and allows us to explore the ways in which language, tradition, and social practices give historical particularity to our thinking. This puts religions of the book and philosophies of reason on a more nearly level playing field in what Ricoeur calls “the conflict of interpretations.” Philosophy loses is special privilege in relation to religion.

Ilaria L.E. Ramelli on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Ramelli%20Dr%20Ilaria%20crp%204169Ilaria L.E. Ramelli is Professor of Theology and K. Britt Chair (SHMS, Angelicum), Senior Visiting Professor at major universities, and Senior Fellow at Oxford University, Princeton University (Hellenic Studies), Durham University and Sacred Heart University Milan (Ancient Philosophy). We invited her to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

This is a very intriguing and helpful question for us scholars — and, I hope, for our students. Thank you for asking it and having us reflect on this!

From my personal experience and my way of conceiving and doing scholarship and all academic and scientific service, I think the main contribution of Philosophy of Religion [PoR] to the modern University is probably helping bridge the gap between Religious Studies / Theology and Philosophy departments. The philosophy-theology/religion divide is legitimate and has its theoretical and historical reasons, but can prove detrimental to scholarship, especially in the study of ancient and late antique thought. Also in light of the universalizing, and not compartmentalizing, etymology of “University” (Universitas), PoR as a discipline within modern University can work against the compartmentalization of philosophy, religious studies, and theology departments – and not only departments, but also competences, ways of thinking, and work. An excessive departmentalization takes away the capacity for complex thinking, complicating perspectives, and interdisciplinary and innovative research and scholarship.

Broadening, interrelating fields, and gaining larger pictures and better vantage points, must not be at the expense of rigorous deepening and competence in one’s own specialization. Ideally, broadening, intertwining, and deepening should go hand in hand to the extent that is humanly possible. This requires a tremendous amount of (individual and team) work and competence, but it also repays to a huge degree in terms of quality of research that can positively advance academic scholarship and thinking.

PoR shows that Religion can, and must, be studied philosophically, and that Philosophy can, and must, have Religion too as its object. PoR in Universities can also take a diachronic, historical approach, which, in my view, can, and still has to, yield extremely rich and momentous results.

More generally, PoR shows that the divine, like human philosophical reflection on the divine, belongs to modern University and occupies an important place in the scholarly and didactic work done in contemporary Universities. And didactic work at University, especially at the graduate level, makes sense only if firmly grounded in living, active scholarship of the highest quality. Professors should be great, accurate, and innovative scholars themselves.

Yet more broadly and importantly, PoR reveals that humans cannot help thinking about the divine and engaging into some relation with it — whatever their religious convictions, including atheistic ones. God is relevant to the modern University and what is going on there. That is, God is relevant to human thinking and human life (which is what University should reflect and enhance).

The perspective and method of PoR (as the branch of Philosophy that investigates Religion philosophically) are those of Philosophy, but they are applied to Religion — and religions. Philosophers of religion in Universities could thus belong to both departments, though primarily, from the disciplinary viewpoint, they should be home in Philosophy departments.

Scholars in ancient and late antique philosophy are in turn found either in Classics or in Philosophy departments, depending on the academic traditions of their Universities. But they study a period in the history of thought in which philosophy was closely related to theology and religion, and had to do with the exegesis of theological traditions. This often took the shape of allegoresis, from Stoicism to Middle/Neoplatonism, including patristic Platonism. Allegoresis was part and parcel of philosophy in the Stoic and Platonic traditions, and showed precisely the connection between religion and philosophy! It indicated how religious traditions expressed philosophical truths. See my “The Philosophical Stance of Allegory in Stoicism and its Reception in Platonism, ‘Pagan’ and Christian,” IJCT 18 (2011) 335-371; “Valuing Antiquity in Antiquity by Means of Allegoresis,” in Valuing the Past in the Greco-Roman World. Penn-Leiden Colloquium on Ancient Values VII, eds. James Ker and Christoph Pieper, Leiden: Brill, 2014, 485-507; “The Philosophical Role of Allegoresis as a Mediator between Physikē and Theologia,” JbRP 12 (2013) 9-26.

In antiquity and late antiquity, theology was part and parcel of philosophy. The study of the divinity was the crowning of philosophy. I highlighted this point myself in a number of studies. Carlos Fraenkel, Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza (Cambridge University Press) also illustates well that for many “pagan,” Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers before the Enlightenment, philosophy and religion were not really distinct.

Of course, I am not advocating a confusion of methodologies between contemporary philosophy and theology, or simply a return to pre-Kantian or pre-Cartesian philosophy, or even to ancient and medieval philosophy as a necessary paradigm for doing philosophy academically today. But perhaps I would like to see more interest in ancient and late antique philosophy by philosophers of religion and philosophers in general, and in turn more interest in PoR by scholars in ancient philosophy. Also, patristic philosophy, particularly patristic Platonism, in which theology/religion was prominent (just as it was in “pagan” Neoplatonism!), should better be considered part of ancient philosophy and studied as such.

Academic journals and series could be devoted to patristic philosophy. Hopefully the gap could be bridged between patristic scholars, who often are not very familiar with ancient philosophy, and scholars in ancient philosophy, who often do not even know patristic philosophers, or discard them as non-philosophers, merely because (one could suspect) they are not conversant with their thought.

An approach such as that offered by PoR helps a great deal study ancient and late antique philosophy and theology. As is well known, there exists no word for “religion” in Greek, Latin, or Hebrew, and the concept itself is elusive in ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman thought and culture. (See Jörg Rüpke, Religion of the Romans, Cambridge: Polity, 2007, 5-12; Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, New Haven: Yale University, 2013.) But significantly there is a word for “philosophy” in Greek, where it was invented, and Latin, and there is a word for “theology” too, coined again in Greek, as the part of philosophy that deals with the divine, and also interprets religious traditions (literary, cultic, icongraphic…) in philosophical terms.

PoR was indeed already practiced by ancient and late antique philosophers, “pagan”, Jewish, and Christian (and Islamic) alike, from Stoic allegorists to Middle and Neoplatonists, Philo and Origen of Alexandria, down to Eriugena and beyond. For Origen, biblical exegesis and the study of the divinity pertained quintessentially to philosophy (as I shall clarify in Origen of Alexandria as Philosopher and Theologian, Cambridge University Press). These intellectual giants, ancient and medieval philosophers of religion, may provide a fruitful source of inspiration for philosophers or religion in our modern Universities.

Eric Steinhart on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

steinhartEric Steinhart is Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Some modern universities are sectarian.  They are committed to specific religious traditions.  To teach at such a university, a professor may have to sign a statement affirming his or her faith in some specific creed.  Sectarian universities have their own uses for their philosophies of their religions. At a Christian university, the philosophy of religion is probably going to be some version of Christian apologetics.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But not all modern universities are sectarian.

Some are secular.  They are public universities, which, at least in the United States, are legally obligated to adhere to the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  If philosophy of religion is Christian apologetics, then it really should not be taught in public universities in the US.  It might even be illegal.  And indeed most contemporary philosophy of religion textbooks are texts in Christian apologetics.   Outside of the US, of course, laws are different.  Nevertheless, in any secular university, the students likely come from diverse religious backgrounds.  So a philosophy of religion course can’t be relevant if it’s just apologetics for one religion. Apologetics for any religion has no business in the modern secular university.  And if philosophy is the pursuit of truth, rather than the handmaiden of theology, then again apologetics has no place in the modern secular university.   Fortunately, apologetics, Christian or otherwise, is not the only way to do philosophy of religion.  But it should be obvious that a course which just offers some general information about world religions isn’t a philosophy of religion course.  The philosophy of religion isn’t religious studies.

Philosophers can nevertheless ask many important questions about religion generally.  There are definitional questions: what is religion?  And many sociological and psychological questions about religion are relevant in philosophy.  But philosophy of religion, as a secular discipline, can ask important questions about religious truth and value.  At least in the West, or in the Abrahamic religions, religious truth claims seem very different from other kinds of truth claims.  Religious truth claims seem heavily isolated from evidence and immune to revision.  Here’s a philosophical problem involving truth and value: do the conceptions of value and truth found in the Abrahamic religions lead to religious violence?  How are religious beliefs and values involved in practical syllogisms whose conclusions are violent actions?

There is no doubt that religions have contributed to the goodness of the world.  But today, sadly, they often seem mainly to be sources of conflict.  So one task for philosophy of religion is conflict reduction.  Secular philosophers of religion can try to work out ways to reduce the conflicts between different religions, or the conflicts between religions and science, and so on.  Many philosophers have done this.  They’ve argued that all religions point to the same ultimate truth or ultimate reality.  Or that science and religion don’t really compete.  A globally ecumenical approach to religion can be valuable in secular universities.  Students from diverse religious backgrounds need to learn how to work together, both in college and in their business or political lives after college. Such an approach is philosophical, because it deals in intensely abstract concepts.

Another strategy for secular philosophy of religion is somewhat historical.  It’s not a history of religion course, but a course which shows how religions evolve, how they are born, live, decline, and die.  Religions form a phylogenetic network.  For example, in the West, there were pre-Christian religions that contributed ideas to Christianity.  And new post-Christian religions are currently emerging.  This kind of course shows students that their own religious ideas are not immutable truths.  It can help to open their minds to religious diversity and tolerance.  It can help reduce conflict.  But it isn’t oppositional: it doesn’t oppose modern atheism to Christianity, but shows, for instance, how modern atheism grows out of Protestant theology.  This sort of evolutionary approach to the secular philosophy of religion isn’t merely a historical survey.  It reveals the dynamics of concepts, arguments, and patterns of religious practice.

A third strategy for secular philosophy of religion is to try to explore the future of religion.  There are three large classes of possible futures here.  One class of possible futures, which philosophers have explored, contains the futures without any religions at all.  Those are essentially secular futures.  Of course, they don’t need to be secular humanisms.   A second class of possible futures contains those in which the old axial age religions have mostly been replaced with new religions.  Philosophers of religion can work on the development of religions that aren’t bound to tribal identities.  We can work on the development of universal religions.  The task of constructing your own religion is an interesting class exercise.  A third class of possible futures involves the evolution of religion into something different.  Today there is evidence that religion in the West is evolving into spirituality.  But spirituality is currently extremely vague.  Philosophers of religion may work to clarify it.  And perhaps spiritualities can be developed in ways that are acceptable by all human animals.  If so, then philosophy of religion in the modern secular university might become philosophy of spirituality.